Rachael Matthews reviews The Human Body is a Hive by Erica Gillingham (Verve, 2022), Richie McCaffery reviews The Wax Argument by Stephen Payne (HappenStance, 2022) and Bruno Cooke reviews House Work by Khadija Rouf (Fair Acre, 2022)
The Human Body is a Hive by Erica Gillingham
Erica Gillingham follows in the footsteps of Carol Ann Duffy, Sean Borodale and others in turning to bees for metaphor —those industrious, threatened, linchpin creatures. Here, Gillingham is concerned with the hive as cellular container, and the queen bee’s out of the ordinary way of becoming pregnant.
This debut pamphlet, written in two parts, hums with the griefs and hopes of friendship, romance, and the slow scientific path to parenthood on which same-sex couples can find themselves. Indeed, it’s a friendly, romantic book, open-hearted, sometimes sexy, wearing lightly the deep complexities it touches on. A couple are making a future, and imagining “the potential for three”. They need help and resilience.
The opening poem is a pungent / poignant glimpse of desire — someone is explaining science while her lover, or would-be lover, drifts off into reverie and becomes aroused, picturing soft pith and citrus scented fingers. Oranges — a classic lesbian leitmotif thanks to Jeanette Winterson — are the only fruit in the book, and, like the yet-to-be-born baby, they exist only in the imagination.
This is a book about the fantasy required to live, love, and make more of ourselves: “The daydreaming started in July / a child with your hair & my eyes”. Everything seems possible; the longed-for daughter is understandably idealized as the couple search for meaning in names, uncovering five minor English nature goddesses along the way.
Parenthood then becomes a “singular humming purpose” as the quest gets heartbreakingly difficult. The poem ‘Greasy Spoon Conception’ feels like a fresh queer take on the Eden myth. A couple wait nervously in a humdrum café eating an English breakfast “a side of hash browns, / black pudding, extra bacon”. All the necessary ingredients. My own fantasy is that the couple’s precious embryos are being made at a clinic while they attempt to be ordinary during the miraculous, “the moment before / a camera shutter clicks”.
This debut pamphlet, written in two parts, hums with the griefs and hopes of friendship, romance, and the slow scientific path to parenthood on which same-sex couples can find themselves
This disembodied, unwitnessed moment of conception is mirrored across the page by ‘Early Grief’, a beautiful poem about the unwitnessed moment of perinatal loss. Here, the language is procedural and pizzicato: on an “unspecified date” an embryo “passed through the cervix / at an unknown time / in a state / that was undetectable”. Third person narration is needed for these charged moments. The camera has panned out. It’s too much and there are almost no words. Bravo to Gillingham for finding hers and for braving this tough terrain. LGBTQ+ communities should be thankful.
Rightful anger and envy are inherent in involuntary childlessness and the pamphlet’s final poem ‘Let’s Make a Baby With Science’ begins brilliantly and incandescently with “We can’t fuck our way to a family”. What sorrow this is. We’re skilfully shown the grief and embodied helplessness of ceding control to fertility doctors (worker bees) and surrendering to the disrupted temporalities of IVF: the stopped and started cycle, the frozen and unfrozen embryo, the anxious might be / might not be of pregnancy … “then we’ll do it all over again. And again. / And again. / And again. / And again.”
We’re left not knowing if a child is born, but there’s a legacy here, aside from the pamphlet. Another way to futurity. ‘Dear Recipient’ is a poem about gamete donation with a hint that the recipient has herself become a donor (drone). The poem is a letter, movingly open about the imagined individual who’s received “half of what’s mine”. Might they meet without knowing it; might the genetic half siblings share “an interest in the oceans, / a talent for writing.”? I love that the poem could also be read as a sperm donor’s letter to his fantasied recipient. These are important, seldom heard voices.
Gillingham’s poems, like all queer poems, are the interlocking cells of the honeycomb, touched on all sides by voices past and present. Again, there’s a radical polyphony at play. I hear echoes of Mary Jean Chan, particularly of her poem ‘They Would Have All That’. She borrowed her title from a line in a Michael Cunningham novel whose gay protagonists, thanks to creative relating, can look forward to children and a mundane domesticity unthinkable not too long ago. And lesbian poet, Adrienne Rich is there too, from a generation who didn’t have the reproductive choices we enjoy today.
Technically, there are now more than 40 ways to have a baby without sexual intercourse. But of course Gillingham knows that you can fuck your way to a family. Figuratively. By the kind of mutual dreaming and hope-holding that doing it the hard way entails.
Rachael Matthews’ debut poetry pamphlet do not be lulled by the dainty starlike blossom was published by The Emma Press in 2021. Exploring working class family life and queer family-making, it was completed during lockdown in New York City while eight months pregnant. She is a Manhattan-trained psychoanalytic psychotherapist with a PhD focusing on trauma and creativity, having begun her working life as a BBC radio journalist and newsreader in London. She currently lives in Sussex, UK, with her wife and their baby daughter.
The Wax Argument by Stephen Payne
When I was at school, Philosophy and Ethics class was not my forte. I remember always being confounded by all the ‘ologies’ — teleology, deontology, ontology ad infinitum. So, when I was sent this, Stephen Payne’s latest pamphlet, I had misgivings. It turns out my fears were all unfounded. Yes, there are certain philosophical conundrums here that I’d never even heard of and looking them up made me feel very dim indeed but what Payne really does is make complex concepts and theories accessible in the form of memorable and musical poetry. The notes tell us that “some of the poems borrow stanza forms” from popular poems like Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, so even if the ideas behind some of the poems are foreign to us, they are often presented in a reassuringly familiar form and sound-system. Payne also manages to reduce Sartre’s existentialism and giant book (600+ pages) Being and Nothingness to a couplet;
The café-goers disappear in smoky air:
leaving Pierre, who isn’t here.
It seems an original approach, to make poetry out of the epistemological, and what Payne also does well is to bring ancient arguments into our sphere by making them relevant to us, to our everyday lives. For instance, ‘Achilles and the Tortoise’ shows us a Sisyphean world where the runner-up in a race will never win because the tortoise has already covered the ground, that distance can be halved forever. But I’m not an athlete, so how does this hypothesis relate to me, in the material world?
Same for me this week, with my email in-box,
trying to prune it.
Ping! — a new guy pops up each time I bin one.
Then at home when I make a joke about it,
and the laugh she laughs is the one I tried for,
she takes a slow step
forward, lets the window-light find a colour
on her horn-rimmed glasses, and there behind them
some expression creasing her eyes a moment.
I couldn’t catch it.
Perhaps poets are closer to philosophers than I’d previously thought — they are agents who interpret phenomena and present it to us in striking and affecting ways, rendering into language and imagery things we might have known all along but hadn’t formulated into words ourselves. It’s like the quandary, put about by Thomas Nagel, of the impossibility of human consciousness being able to precisely comprehend the nature of being a bat, how a bat experiences their ‘batness’. That said, the act of a bat using echo-location to guide itself through the obstacles of the night seems to me to be comparable to the act of writing a poem, trying to find a route through the unknown:
Is it a pain, finding your way
by processing a messy overlay
of pressure waves, parsing it out?
Does a sound map leave any space for doubt?
Do some bats wonder what life’s all about?
Perhaps poets are closer to philosophers than I’d previously thought — they are agents who interpret phenomena and present it to us in striking and affecting ways, rendering into language and imagery things we might have known all along but hadn’t formulated into words ourselves
I’ve heard people compare poetry to a cognitive phenomenon called ‘pareidolia’, which is the human instinct to see patterns in things, to spot the face in the trees, to see the metaphor in the concrete world. It can only be a good thing to be reminded that poetry is manifestation of brain chemistry rather than the act of some mystical daemon who feeds you lines and inspiration when it feels like doing so. I appreciate how these poems get you thinking about such things and certain poems such as ‘The Ballad of the Rescue’ remind us of ethical problems that human thought has still to satisfactorily answer or resolve, that of the clash between utilitarian ethics (greatest good for the greatest number) and deontological ethics which dictates that any decision should adhere to a moral code or law, regardless of the consequences:
Her 4×4 could save four more
(with the smallest in the boot),
except that the loner was lying prone
across the only route.
Unless she crushed him under her wheels
she’d never reach the five,
and so she reckoned a second time
and helped the one survive.
The ghosts of the five she left to die
haunt her both night and day,
gnashing and wailing that she was conned
by the one who got away.
The rescuer acts the way I would too, in such a situation but either option is not morally irreproachable. It’s a Gordian knot of a dilemma (and the metaphorical language I have just used to describe it is itself couched in ancient myth and philosophy — there’s no escaping it). Another thought experiment / poem I connected with was ‘The Ship of Theseus’, how something that is pressed into use for many years and has essential repairs performed on it slowly, but eventually turns into something else, something other. In building conservation one particular phrase abounds: ‘replace like for like’ which means if you remove the old windows from a building you must replace them with sympathetic replicas. But this is inherently a fallacy, as what has gone before can never be the same, it can’t be the old glass that centuries of eyes have looked out of, it lacks that history. But Payne argues that even if a building is bombed, such as Bath Assembly Rooms, the material actuality of the building is different but something more abstract, almost ineffable, remains:
Now I want the answer to be yes —
for John Wood II, the architect on site,
who envisioned the place
like this, striped by window-light.
The title poem ‘The Wax Argument’ was one of the few philosophical analogies I did know before reading this pamphlet. Again, like ‘The Ship of Theseus’ it is about the fundamental quintessence of things and the mind / body problem. Descartes holds in his hand a small ball of wax, fresh from the hive, and it is redolent of the bees and flowery fields that made it. He lists its qualities and their appeal to the senses. But as he moves it to the fire there’s a sudden transformation scene, everything that made it wax is altered but it remains undeniably wax. What persists is “A concept, a conceit”. You could ask a class to write a poem on a certain concept or conceit and they would all come up with different results but all intrinsically similar and then you could read one poem to a class and it would provoke differing opinions and interpretations (depending on experiences, views, values, context etc), yet the poem remains, sealed in words, as a sort of verbal icon (to pinch a term from New Criticism). Perhaps I’m talking cobblers here (there’s a poem in this collection called ‘The Prince and the Cobbler’) but I think this is why Payne centred on ‘The Wax Argument’ as the overall title. Words mean something, but poets are innovators and thinkers who put them through their paces.
Richie McCaffery lives in Warkworth, Northumberland. He’s the author of four poetry pamphlets — Spinning Plates (HappenStance Press, 2012), Ballast Flint (Cromarty Arts Trust, 2013), First Hare (Mariscat Press, 2020) and Coping Stones (Fras Publications, 2021), and two full collections, both from Nine Arches Press — Cairn (2014) and Passport (2018). He’s also the editor of Finishing the Picture: Collected Poems of Ian Abbot (Kennedy and Boyd, 2015), The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Joan Ure (Brae Editions, 2018) and Sydney Goodsir Smith: Essays on his life and work (Brill, 2020).
House Work by Khadija Rouf
Khadija Rouf’s House Work comprises 32 poems over 48 pages. It alternates loosely between domestic settings — utility room, attic, kitchen — and corporeal ones. Rouf invites readers into not only her home, but also the spaces created between her and her lover, the intimate nooks formed by them with each other. Frequently, one realm becomes the other. There is a confluence of personal and domiciliary spaces achieved at times with indirect association and metaphor, at others with direct juxtaposition: the two worlds meld, on and off, throughout the collection. Cables become veins; her house sheds flakes of skin and has a “crown of slate”.
Selma James is present in its pages, although Rouf is careful in treading her own path. Immediately following the epigraph (which quotes an interview James gave with The Guardian in 2012, in which she talks about housewifery and capitalism) is ‘Hands’ — addressed to my lover — which sets a markedly different tone, and does so knowingly. “You take me by surprise”, it starts, “you seeking my hands”. It makes no bones. Her partner traces “the contour of my lips”, maps her cheekbones, and brings her to “the brink of something new”. And yet, incongruously, he is house-like, his hands “cool marble”, his veins “turquoise cables”.
Your hands, masculine, cool marble,
beneath skin, the turquoise cables of your veins —
electric — and scarlet, like dogwood canes in winter.
She cannot help but see things through the lens of domesticity — which compulsion rears its head throughout House Work. In ‘After’, Rouf details how, after “the baby, everything changed”. Her body follows “its script”, familiar yet alien, like her home, in which she must “re-negotiate each room”. Meditations follow: on washing machines, utility rooms, hoovers and toilets. Childbirth shunts her into the triple role of mother, housekeeper and cleaner. It forces her to find wildness in unlikely places, intrigue in tedium, and it’s in these instances that Rouf is at her most entertaining and creative.
In ‘The formation of dust’, she sees constellations in the undulations of house dust; “domestic becomes cosmic” and “meteorites tumble into teacups”. She and her partner “shed fine particles” — not merely of skin, but “glittering dust”. Later, in the act of vacuum cleaning, Rouf transforms into a goddess followed by a “squat, wheeled companion” with an “unblinking, permanent grin”. That’s Henry. Henry Hoover. Henry is “pissed on the job” with a “mocking Prozac smile”, and his eyes are “wide with wonder”. When “hoovering / is an act of violence” he is there to pick up the pieces.
I’m guilty when he offers a necklace of fluff and hair,
his eyes wide with wonder, his gift to the Goddess.
For a debut collection, House Work feels confident and well-paced, evincing a knack for rhythm and sensuality
‘Toilet’ sees Rouf’s audacity reach its peak. The poet transforms the task of cleaning a toilet into a sexual act — a “mindful ritual” in which she moves “like a dancer […] on her knees”, causing blue streaks to “wriggle to the water, curl and disperse like tears”. The meeting of the domestic and corporeal realms finds its, ahem, climax in this humbling performance: “I start at the cistern and work my way down.” But beyond that, there is no suggestion that she is fetishising house work or that, as a result of the birth of her child, her desire for sexual intimacy is left unsatisfied. One might draw such conclusions, based on the rest of the collection, but ‘Toilet’ itself is just so. Rouf extends the metaphor, too caught up in the act to self-analyse; we must work out why. “Discard. Breathe.”
It is only much later, after chopping onions conjures thoughts of murder, after a woman in Liverpool has taken a chainsaw to her Dyson, and after an argument over the division of labour — ‘the untapped power of an un-ironed skirt’ — that Rouf arrives at her thesis, in ‘for Selma James’. Originally published online on the Women’s Global Strike webpage in 2013 (which organisation will receive all profits from House Work), ‘for Selma James’ pays tribute to the now-91-year-old feminist writer. James co-founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign (IWFHC) in 1972, continuing the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. And if Rouf’s thesis rests on overly general assumptions about the roles of men and women in heterosexual relationships, it does so in good faith, and based on lived experience.
The spin cycle whirls.
it is a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
are equal, for a time.
Then, a woman and a washing machine are one.
— from ‘13 ways of looking at a washing-machine’
For a debut collection, House Work feels confident and well-paced, evincing a knack for rhythm and sensuality. It invites the reader into the mind of a woman navigating life after childbirth and will, I’m sure, be relatable to many — even as a younger man, I found myself nodding along. From washing machines to whirligigs via the recycling bins, Rouf’s meditations are sharp yet tender; she welcomes us kindly into her home, showing us the dark corners and the light. Her portrayals of domestic spats feel honest, her most intimate moments natural. And, if her vignettes ever feel descriptive, the narrative arc they punctuate is strong enough to hold them up.
Bruno Cooke is The Friday Poem’s Spoken Word Poetry Editor. He is a postgraduate student studying global journalism with research interests in the intersection of the media, storytelling, culture and politics. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, The Focus and Forge Press, and you can read most of them on Medium. Bruno Cooke’s website is at onurbicycle.com. He has written four plays and one novel, Reveries, and currently lives in Sheffield with his partner and their cat Kylo Rennington Spa (the Purred).